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Breast Cancer Changed My Entire Body Forever—But I'm Finally OK with It

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Photo: Caitlin Kiernan

I always knew that after having a mastectomy, my breasts would be collateral damage. What I didn't realize was that all the subsequent treatments and cancer meds would change the rest of my body—my waistline, hips, thighs and arms—forever. Cancer was tough stuff but I knew to expect that, as crappy as it is. What was harder for me—and something I was totally unprepared for—was watching my "old self" physically morph into a body I no longer recognized.

Before I was diagnosed, I was a trim and toned size 2. If I put on a few pounds from overindulging on wine and pizza, I could stick to salads for a few days and immediately shed the extra weight. After cancer it was a totally different story. To reduce the risk of a recurrence, I was put on tamoxifen, an estrogen-blocking drug. While it is a literal lifesaver, it also has some pretty brutal side effects. The big one being that it put me into "chemopause"—chemically induced menopause. And with that came hot flashes and weight gain. (Related: These Influencers Want You to Embrace the Things You're Told to Dislike About Your Bodies)

Unlike before, when I could drop weight quickly and easily, menopausal weight proved a greater challenge. The depletion of estrogen caused by the tamoxifen causes the body to hold onto and store fat. This "sticky weight," as I like to call it, takes A LOT more work to shed, and staying in shape proved difficult. Fast-forward two years, I had packed on 30 pounds that wouldn't budge.

I hear survivors talk about how stressed and depressed they are about their post-cancer bodies. I can relate. Every time I opened up my closet and saw all the cute, size 2 clothes hanging there, I would get seriously bummed out. It was like staring at a ghost of my former thin and stylish self. At some point, I got tired of feeling sad and decided it was time to quit the bitching and reclaim my body. (Related: Women Are Turning to Exercise to Help Them Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)

The biggest hurdle? I hated working out and eating healthy. But I knew that if I really wanted to make a change, I was going to have to embrace the torture of it all. "Put up or shut up," as they say. My sister, Moira, helped me kick off my lifestyle transformation. One of her favorite workouts was spinning, which I had done years before, and, well, hated. Moira encouraged me to give it another go. She told me about why she loved SoulCycle—the thumping music, candlelit rooms, and the wave of positive vibes one gets with each "ride." It sounded like a cult that I wanted no part of, but she talked me into giving it a go. One fall morning at 7 a.m. I found myself strapping on cycling shoes and clipping into a bike. Spinning on that bike for 45 minutes was tougher than any workout I had done before, but it was also unexpectedly fun and inspiring. I left exhilarated and proud of myself. That class led to another, then to another.

These days, I work out three times a week, doing a mix of Physique 57, AKT, and SoulCycle. I also work out with a trainer once a week to get some weight-bearing exercises into the rotation. Sometimes, I'll throw in a yoga class or try something new. Mixing up my workouts has been key. Yes, it helps prevent boredom, but it has an additional benefit especially important for women in menopause: It prevents the muscles and metabolism from plateauing. When you switch it up, the body doesn't get a chance to adapt, and instead, it remains in a responsive state, allowing the body to burn calories and build muscle more efficiently.

Changing my diet has also been challenging. You've heard the expression "80 percent of weight loss is diet." For women in menopause, it feels more like 95 percent. I learned that when the body starts storing fat, calories in don't equate to calories out. The fact is, being mindful about what and how much you consume has a direct correlation to how easy—or difficult—it is to achieve your goals. For me, meal-prepping high-protein, low-carb dishes for the week on Sundays became a new way of life, along with keeping healthy snacks like almonds and protein bars in my desk to satisfy my afternoon cravings. (Related: Portable High-Protein Snacks You Can Make In a Muffin Tin)

But in pushing my body to be the healthiest it can be physically through diet and exercise, something unexpected happened in that process: I was able to retrain my mind to be healthier as well. In the past when I would work out, I would sulk and moan the entire time. It's no wonder I hated exercising! I made the experience miserable and exhausting. But then I began to shift my attitude, replacing negative thoughts with positive ones as soon as they popped up. At first, it was really hard to change this thinking pattern, but the more I focused on the silver linings of situations, the more I started thinking positively, without forcing it. I no longer had to actively monitor myself. My brain and body had become aligned, working in tandem. 

My personal health and fitness journey led me to partner with two other cancer survivors and an oncology nurse to start The Cancer Wellness Expo. It's a day filled with yoga, meditation, and panels with oncology doctors, breast surgeons, sexual health experts, and beauty pros—to help women who have beat cancer or who are still in treatment navigate their way back to wellness in all aspects. (Related: How Fitness Helped This Woman Cope with Going Blind and Deaf)

Am I back to a size 2? No, I am not—and I never will be. And I'm not going to lie, that's been one of the toughest things to deal with in "survivorhood." I often struggle to find clothes that fit my body, to feel confident or sexy in swimsuits or intimate situations, or to just be comfortable in my own skin. But finding my fitness groove has helped me see how resilient I am. My body endured a terminal illness. But by finding fitness, I've bounced back stronger. (And yes, I do find it ironic that being healthy comes in the form of a curvier, softer silhouette today thanks to the body-pos movement.)

But having been witness to what the body can endure, and then accomplish, has allowed me to be grateful and accepting in the face of moments of mourning. It's a complicated relationship for sure—but one that I wouldn't trade. My curves and jiggle remind me that I won the battle and am fitter and fiercer than ever before—and to have a sense of gratitude for the second chance I get at life. 

 

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